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Embracing Openness

Rotman magazine, the print and online quarterly of the Rotman School of Management, has just released its new (Winter) issue, devoted to the theme “Open.” Openness has been a buzzword for a while, ever since Henry Chesbrough wrote his seminal book on Open Innovation, but, to apply Gartner’s Hype-Cycle terminology, now it seems as if Openness has finally reached a plateau of productivity after going through years of troughs of disillusion.

The Rotman issue is thus timely, and it is wise to (re-)frame the topic as “culture (and economy) of sharing,” as the foreword does:

“The fundamental rules that govern how relationships work between organizations and stakeholders are being rewritten: computation, storage and communication capacity – the basic means necessary to produce information, knowledge and culture – are now in the hands of every connected person worldwide (30 per cent of the world’s population of seven billion people.) The result: a culture of sharing powered by ubiquitous access to information that empowers stakeholders and demands radical transparency.

Unfortunately, many business leaders remain flummoxed in the face of stakeholders empowered by new tools that once seemed unimaginable: blogs, Facebook and Twitter, to name a few. Make no mistake, as your stakeholders become more adept at using these tools, they will demand that you become more open about your activities, and that you engage them in conversations that matter. With one billion new middle-class consumers set to enter the global economy in the next decade, the more you understand the new culture of sharing, the better off you and your organization will be.“

Amongst other contributions, the Openness issue features articles from management guru and Rotman dean Roger Martin and Wikinomics author Don Tapscott, as well as interviews with Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group and author of Open Leadership, and Linus Torvalds, the godfather of Linux. (Full disclosure, it also includes an article I originally wrote for design mind, “Openness or How to Design for the Loss of Control”).

Only if you’re open, you can share and be shared with. And if you share, you shall receive the greatest benefit, the greatest gift of all – someone else sharing something with you: their knowledge, their networks, their passion, their ideas. It is worth noting that the TEDGlobal conference 2012 – committed to sharing “Ideas Worth Spreading” – in Edinburgh will be held under the theme Radical Openness: “The world is becoming increasingly interconnected and open. Radically open – manifesting itself in open borders, open culture, open-source, open data, open science, open world, open minds. With the loss of privacy that it implies, openness carries its own dangers. But it breeds transparency, authenticity, creativity, and collaboration.”

My company, frog, is embracing Openness, too. We share our thinking with more than 330,000 followers on Twitter; more than 60% of our employees engage on Yammer in conversations that range from water-cooler topics to crowdsourced insights research firms would kill for; and design mind, the outlet you’re reading, is an open forum for all of our employees to publish their thoughts. We also recently launched SpeedMe, our own ‘speed-dating’ activity, to faciliate the bonding between new hires and ‘old frogs.’ In the words of our NY-based Associate Creative Director Dino Sanchez: “frog has grown quite a bit over the past year and with all our busy schedules it’s been difficult to keep up with new hires. Creativity is something that hinges on critique and in some cases brutal honesty, so knowing your colleagues and being comfortable with them is essential to a productive process.” Openness needs to be designed for.

At a the recent i7 Innovation Summit near Paris, frog ran a session at the beginning of the conference where we asked the conference attendees to break out into pairs and interview each other based on a questionnaire that we had prepared. Questions spanned the professional (e.g. “When was the last time you fired someone?” or “What was your biggest failure with the greatest learning?”) and the more personal (“What is your favorite movie?” – “What was your biggest lie”? etc.). The pairs had to fill in the answers in poster-size sheets which were subsequently mounted to a huge wall in the lobby, as a sort of “physical Facebook.”

David Rowan, editor of Wired UK, ran a similar exercise at WPP Stream in Athens, and in both instances the exercises were true ice-breakers for the attendees, forcing them to experience the implications of Openness first-hand: How open do I want to be? At what point does Openness become uncomfortable? What do I consider private in public? How much do I have to give in order to receive? Rowan argued that this kind of interactive, public data-mining would benefit any gathering as social interactions are typically more valuable when they’re facilitated by even a basic level of familiarity and trust among strangers. (On a related note, I’ve begun lately to ask job candidates to fill out the Proust questionnaire. Sure, professional qualifications matter the most, but at the end of the day you want to know who the person is you hire because chances are you’ll spend more time with them than with your own family.)

Yet pretending that Openness is just like any other business initiative that you can plan and execute would be disingenuous. It is a massive cultural change and requires a whole new mindset. The real challenges await the advocates of Openness after the first glitch, when things, very openly, go awry, and the conservative minds quickly come out of the closet to stigmatize one-time errors as systematic flaws. With every failure of Openness, the power of those who prefer Control rises exponentially. There is no doubt about it – openness, true, radical openness, hurts. It makes you uncomfortable, vulnerable, weak, and deprives you of the subtleties that came with control – but the benefits are huge. Pick the moments of Openness carefully: they will be your worst enemies and your best friends.

Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.